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VOL. 132 | NO. 153 | Thursday, August 3, 2017

New St. Jude Grad School Welcomes Inaugural Class

By Michael Waddell

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Dr. Michael Dyer, chair of the Department of Neurobiology at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, addresses students in the inaugural class of the hospital’s new graduate school that he and other St. Jude faculty members and researchers will be teaching. (Submitted)

Following years of planning, development of curriculum and recruitment of staff and faculty, the first class of a dozen students has begun studies at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s new Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

“It’s an idea that’s been in the incubator for probably 15 years at St. Jude,” said Dr. Stephen White, who came to the hospital 20 years ago to help set up the structural biology department. “It immediately became obvious to me then that this environment would be perfect for graduate education.”

When Dr. James R. Downing became St. Jude CEO in 2014, one of the first things he did was give the go-ahead to form the graduate school.

In essentially creating a new university in Tennessee, formal permission had to come from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission as well as from the St. Jude board of governors. The hospital received approvals in late 2015.

Brian Walton came on as associate dean, Racquel Collins as assistant dean, and Tiffany Young-Polk as registrar, and then White stepped down as the chair of structural biology to assume the role as dean of the graduate school.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

Some of the benefits provided for students in the five-year Ph.D. program:

 • A stipend of $35,000 per year.

• Medical benefits for student and dependents.

• A full tuition waiver.

• Time off for holidays, breaks, and medical and personal leave (with approval).

• Free, secure on-campus parking and free access to on-site fitness center, including exercise classes and wellness seminars.

• Laptop and IT support for the duration of studies at St. Jude.

• Training in English as a Second Language, if applicable.

• Professional development support, including travel allowance for conferences, regular career-oriented seminars and events, networking opportunities and exposure to international speakers.

The graduate faculty consists of more than 100 basic scientists and clinicians who are also members of the faculty of St. Jude’s hospital.

Walton, Collins and White traveled all over the country to get the word out about the new school.

“We had over 100 applicants, and it was an interesting challenge because we had to persuade students to come to a school that existed on paper but there were no prior students,” White said. “But it was good because it self-selected those students who were willing to take a chance. All of our students could get into graduate school anywhere in the U.S., but the fact that they’re willing to come to St. Jude and take a chance on this new venture says something special about them.”

Students in the school’s inaugural class hail from all across the U.S., including Memphian Alex Hughes.

“Growing up in Memphis, I’ve heard about St. Jude my entire life. It’s a really great place that produces great science,” said Hughes, who attended Mississippi State University and majored in biomedical engineering. “Last summer I worked at St. Jude in the Pediatric Oncology Education program, and that exposed me to the quality of science that’s done here at St. Jude, the fast pace, and everything that’s open for us to use.”

Working as an undergrad at Mississippi State got Hughes involved in a biophysical chemistry lab and he became interested in doing more research.

“My end goal is to do more translational research,” he said. “I would like to go into some kind of therapeutics for cancer research, so I’m looking at going into either drug therapy or gene therapy. The reason I want to do that work at St. Jude is because they have the option to go see the patients, take the work that you do into the lab, and really see the benefits it can have in the patients’ lives.”

Each year, St. Jude will be working to bring another 12 students into the five-year program, so that at the end of five years a running total of about 60 students will be enrolled.

“We have the potential to expand it, but not for the foreseeable future,” White said.

The program has its own custom-designed space in the Marlo Thomas Center for Global Education and Collaboration on campus.

“The biggest strength of St. Jude is translational research, which is taking the basic research and transitioning that to the clinic,” White said. “We’re probably one of the best institutions around for doing that. So the students naturally will do that type of research. That’s the big emphasis of the program, and it’s what really sets us apart from anywhere else, always with the goal of the mission of the hospital, which is to save children’s lives from catastrophic diseases.”

After a first-year curriculum designed to give them the same fundamental knowledge, students can choose their subspecialty area from St. Jude’s 22 academic departments to get their overall degree in biomedical research.

In addition to the hands-on training, students will have access to state-of-the-art technology and core facilities. Professional development, including grant writing and public speaking, will also be a focal point in the first two years.

“They all have to write an NIH (National Institutes of Health) grant, which will be submitted during their second year as part of the examination, which will allow them to continue toward their Ph.D.,” White said. “They don’t all have to get the grant, but they all have to apply for it. It’s good training, and it helps to bring money to St. Jude.”

After the first two years, students who pass exams get a transitional master’s degree and then go on to their Ph.D.

Next, the school is developing a two-year master’s program for its new Department of Pediatric Global Health. Treatments coming from the department will be shared with doctors from abroad. White believes the program will be up and running in the next two years.

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